Cycle Chronicle – Landscapes the Boy Saw

November 11–19, 2005

In the last few years, the Torino Film Festival (originally called Cinema Giovani) has gained something of an international reputation as one of Europe film culture’s Must-Attend Events. A supreme quality in programming it always had; what it lacked, it seems, was the savvy – or simply the budget – to get the necessary/deserved attention. During the last ten years, several well-established Italian festivals either folded completely or were downsized – well, sometimes, due to cowardly leadership, they stupidly reduced themselves – to minor events of mainly local relevance. Torino not only stayed in the game but was even capable of gaining in importance. As with the work of the people at Alba’s Infinity Festival, the shooting star among Italy’s film festivals, it shows that putting together a meaningful film festival has only so much to do with money and access (although both certainly have both) – the most important thing is the vision of cinema, a vision strong enough to make it all gel. To have that eye plus the trust in one’s own instinct, that makes for serious programming.

That said, Torino is a polymorphously perverse behemoth of an event: it’s BIG. So big actually, that one can blissfully ignore huge parts of it. Or, does any foreigner who isn’t out on a scouting mission ever go to the screenings of the Italian competitions? Or does anybody from wherever else pay serious attention to the international competition? Well, they do, at least to the latter, and more often than not they’re put down a bit: while there are usually one or two watchable items on offer – this year: Robinson Devor’s agreeable Police Beat (2005), and Michael Busch’s Sieben Himmel (Seven Heaven) (2005) might turn out to be pretty fascinating when seen on a somewhat smaller screen – but for the most part, the films are… not bad enough to be thrashed mercilessly while not interesting or engaging or just weird/off enough to even merit some second thoughts the morning after – they’re decent in a way that gives good manners a bad rep. So, why is Torino so goddamn cool? Because of the retrospectives and tributes as well as its selection of recent films that are not in the competition.

By Torino standards, this year’s retrospectives were rather canonical: the complete Walter Hill sans Supernova (2000), part one of the ultra-complete Claude Chabrol, part two of the quest for Rogério Sganzerla, a duographical homage to Lav Diaz and Lino Brocka, a tribute to Lodge Kerrigan, plus a micro-tribute to Alfred E. Green: quite a lot of offerings, different enough from each other – thank God! – so that nothing felt redundant. Nevertheless, a thought or two on the interplay of things would have been nice – there’s always some more intellectual mileage to be had. On paper, this looked like a well of exstasis – in reality, things were… different, for different reasons.

The Chabrols, I skipped, feeling shitty about it, because there aren’t that many opportunities to watch such charming genre shenanigans like Marie-Chantal contre Dr. Kha (Blue Panther) or Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite (An Orchid for the Tiger) (both 1965) in the cinema, as most Chabrol retrospectives – that is, their executors – are too obsessed with cinematic seriousness and respectability to show these gleefully pulpy works. Something Uncle Claude never cared too much about; whether the individual film as such is brilliant or abysmal seems beside the point, for the thing that always comes through in each work, however lesser, is our beloved uncle’s joy of filmmaking: the pleasure principle on a 24/7 rampage. But, no, there was no bowing to Uncle Claude, because there was too much else to contemplate. Like Walter Hill. Which turned out to be the downer of Torino ‘05. Put simply: he failed the test of time. While a handful of films – The Long Riders (1980), Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), Wild Bill (1995)… okay, it’s a mutilated hand – still look great or even greater than ever, the other stuff, for the most part, looks either dated or just awful. And then there’s Crossroads (1986) which managed to look even worse than it did in its time. The only major surprise turned out to be Brewster’s Millions (1985) which has a common decency lacking in most contemporary products of comparable nature, plus it has a serene sense of depression, a strange insistence on moments of pain and doubt, becoming a peculiar meditation on failure. Hill’s meta-movie?

The Warriors

The rest… 48hrs. (1982): lotsobabblebabblebabble, boooring and boorish, done away with by time (the sequel is even worse). Streets of Fire (1984) looks more interesting than it should, due to its will for stylisation, however ill-advised and lacking in substance, for there is something. This could have been a good film – now it’s but a time capsule, with all that works and all that doesn’t eclipsing one another into a zero-sum-something. Its older paragon, The Warriors (1979; HD-beamed in an Ultimate Director’s Cut…), on the other hand, still feels genuinely engaging because of the obvious difference between its imagined world and the real surroundings in which it was shot. There’s a productive krypto-proto-Brechtian tension between the archaic-ish story and the sometimes outlandish costumes, all that they signify/insinuate, and the dull dirty grey-on-grey streets and houses where it was shot – garish light patterns like graffiti on a vacuous vastness – which gives the film an irreverent aliveness, some ever so subtle documentary vibes. By striving too hard to be timeless, Streets of Fire became a document of a zeitgeist brimming with self-agrandising self-negation and vulgar affluence – while The Warriors constantly loses time-weight because its days edged themselves so deeply into the film’s fabric/action that they remain a fact and therefore negotiable, not a claim and therefore easily deniable. Despite all that, The Warriors doesn’t really add up to more than there is, which in its time looked great – argued along that super-auteurist-doctrine of cinema pour cinema in defiance of all those films with a cause or two – but which now feels a bit useless, especially after the glory of the Hill Westerns…

Maybe the Hill dilemma is this: he first disappointed all those who saw in him the great white hope of materialist action-dom, then he disappointed everybody who had brainier hopes for him, making him a disappointment for everybody…

Anyway. Extreme Prejudice (1987) still has an enigmatic ne plus ultra machoness but no spiritual space in which it could have some kind of existential/ist dimension; in Last Man Standing (1996) – a one-off motherfucker of a Kurosawa-riff – this develops into some kind of exercise in somnambulance sliding nowhere fast – the streets of The Driver (1978), ambivalence square, with its Halickian literalism going places spiritually – close-by; but nevertheless – due to its vulgo-Bressonian materialism… but what in Hell for? Well, better to ponder the enigma of movement than the reasons for Red Heat (1988) – shudder. Johnny Handsome (1989) looks like it-wanted-a-lot-but-didn’t-know-how-to-get-it. Trespass (1992), like 48hrs., has aged badly, mainly because its basic premise is just too fucking preposterous, a problem with many Hill films: whenever in doubt, just make the space turn. But, no amount of sheer bravado craftsmanship delivers his protagonists from essentially being cut-outs, therefore, it’s not even craftsmanship, only expert technique.

Hard Times (1978), on the other hand, still looks and moves just fine; and so does Undisputed (2002), actually one seriously underappreciated film by Hill. Once again, an ever-so-fleeting basis in the realm of the real (Mike Tyson doing time) gives Hill just enough grounding to create a piece with some depth, a work that feels real and that plays like perfect genre filmmaking. Suddenly there is a spiritual essence: the way any achievement is relative considered in relation to the absolute that is life as such.

All of this adds up to a notion about Hill’s qualities which somewhat deviates from accepted wisdom: his forte isn’t condensation, a relentless drive towards ever denser spaces and tighter time-frames, but actually the opposite, a poetry of narrative fragments, of either epic elongations or contesting considerations encircling each other, describing a dilemma or even a paradox (Johnny Handsome, for example, is betrayed by its second half – the first, with its huge ellipses, is just fine). The narratives of his finest achievements – the Westerns, Undisputed, maybe the Perversions of Science-pilot Dream of Doom (1997) – are hi/stories like flags tattered after a long day’s dying on a field once in bloom, harvest never comes… (in Dream of Doom, time and reality collapse on and on…). It’s their characters and ideas that make these films move and moving, not so much – but also – physical movements and/or narrative designs leading towards one last move or gesture; that, and the notion that the end doesn’t matter as such, for it is known or besides the point. And suddenly, the one Hill film everybody seemed to be willing to agree on, Southern Comfort (1981), looks like a “less than meets the eye” case: Hill’s will for narrative compression, tight-as-a-duck’s-ass drama effectively precludes the über-obvious Vietnam War parable from ever developing into more than a really good idea: it’s there, but doesn’t become anything. After all this, Walter Hill’s career so far looks like a failure: for his great films look more like accidents than masterpieces destined to happen.

There’s something of Monty Brewster in Walter Hill: his angst. However depressing this insight might have been, it could be gained with the finest prints imaginable. That’s one thing about Torino: they always have eye-poppingly, mind-bogglingly beautiful prints. Certainly of the Hollywood productions, most of the times of the rest, too.

Ina, Kapatid, Anak

There’s something cine-ethically seriously close to fubar when one can suffer through Walter Hill’s lowest piece of shit with a pristine-looking print while a major work by Lino Brocka, Ina, Kapatid, Anak (Mother, Sister, Daughter) (1979), is beamed from a DVD and a pretty important essay-short by Rogério Sganzerla, A Linguagem de Orson Welles (The Language of Orson Welles) (1990), from a tape – and, no!, the solution is not showing Ralph Macchio with an evil haircut and an even worse-looking jacket suddenly looking like a liveable future when faced with Steve Vai from a scratchy 16mm B&W print, or some such.

Why did they show Ina, Kapatid, Anak like this? There were so many masterpieces by Brocka which were not shown that one film didn’t make that much of a difference. And surely – nay, certainly – there are other prints of Brocka around that one could have shown. Admittedly, it might be tough to find them; one may have to look at rather unusual places, probably in countries not exactly known as hotbeds of film preservation; and maybe they don’t have any kind of subtitles or some in a non-Western language. All of this adds up to a single truth: one may have to make an investment in things. But even if one accepts however grudgingly and in a state of mild disbelief that the kind of resources needed just aren’t there – the screening of a film from DVD remains inexcusable.

But then, screenings from shitty DVDs is probably the future of Brocka’s legacy: people in the Philippines don’t have the kind of money needed while people in the so-called West aren’t interested enough to invest in the preservation of Philippino films, works (/countries/cultures: to give this whole problem some scope) that are considered to be of at best secondary importance in the greater scheme of things, and that never will be able to become more than that because they aren’t given the chance – one can watch them at home on video/DVD, if deemed necessary they can be screened from these media, one can write about them and make a case for them, but unless somebody says, “There are already enough fine Renoir prints around that, when needed, we can always get from somebody else [this said in a spirit of belief in mankind that the world of film preservation often doesn’t merit…], let’s see to it that there are also, for now, at least the 20-plus core works of Lino Brocka available in the kind of prints the master deserves so that his might and beauty can be felt once again”, as long as nobody says something like this, Brocka will not get the chance to challenge, say, Renoir or whoever have you from the canon. For now, “we” just don’t care, remain full of sorrow, but don’t engage in any way that might make us question “our” agenda – the tropical heat, inadequate storage facilities, and time will do the rest. Silence.

The fact that Diaz’s Hesus, Rebolusyonaryo (Jesus, Revolutionary) (2002) was also only shown from some tape plus the fact that both his film fleuves were screened in chops for the most part (there was one “real” screening of Ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino [Evolution of a Philippino Family] [2004-05] but none of Batang West Side [2001] which was shown with breaks even when the three chops were shown one after the other), gave this whole affair a somewhat triste, careless air.

All that said: the way people reacted to the works of Brocka and Diaz was encouraging – though admittedly, the fact that most had never even heard of Brocka was scary… Just a decade and a half ago his films were shown in Cannes in competition, everybody’s hero Serge Daney was rhapsodising about them, and now… Silence.

Now, I don’t want to sound like a spiritual curmudgeon, only nagging and such – but it seems crucial to how cinema, its history, will live on with and among us. And that we remember that cinema’s place is in the theatre, not at home, and that every major consideration about its meaning is and should be made there, in the public, the demo’s space. And that every ever so miniscule slight reflects badly on our common humanity. What are we worth if we don’t grant Brocka the same respect and care we grant to Walter Hill, differences in opinion on their relative merits notwithstanding?

Princess Raccoon

And what was there to love and to praise from the recent films? Quite a lot, with Japan, once again, delivering a major part of the goodies. Two old guys basically drew a line through the festival: on the one side were they, on the other side was the rest. One of them, Suzuki Seijun, had his latest essay in ur-Japanese Modernism, his kind-of homage to Willi Forst, Operetta tanuki-goten (Princess Raccoon) (2005), already in Cannes. Let’s just say: while most people prefer it to his last extravaganza, Pistol Opera (2001), I don’t, for actually the same reason the others like it that much better: too linear, too ordinarily narrative. Suzuki’s awesome inventiveness, his protean imagination feels a bit too decorous/flourished in this story, it doesn’t develop that mind/sensuousness of its own, while in Pistol Opera, every image, every gesture IS the story, is history. Which doesn’t mean that Operetta tanuki-goten isn’t a masterpiece – it’s just not sooo sui generis.

Wakamatsu Koji’s 17-sai no fûkei – Shônen wa nani o mita no ka (Cycle Chronicle – Landscapes the Boy Saw) (2004), on the other hand… now, that’s a monument! A ruttingless return to his purely talent-driven pieces of poetry and ‘60s/’70s agit-pop, to the Theory of Landscape his main man, Adachi Masao, as well as other underground ultra-radicals believed in, the film basically consists of a boy on a bike riding along the rougher parts of Japan’s coastline – after having de-brained his mother. Of the film’s 90 minutes, about 60 of them consist of the boy on the bike – one gut-wrenchingly beautiful directorial gesture after the other. Suddenly! – thoughts are written onto the image, the Izo-known singer/songwriter wails and howls on the soundtrack “…and he got riding, riding riding, riding high”, to quote a seemingly self-composed song Hanns Zischler sings in Rudolph Thome’s Berlin Chamissoplatz (1980). Sometimes the boy meets people who talk to him (he rarely says anything): they’re landscapes of resistance and memory, they talk about Japan’s war guilt and how post-war Japan is but a variation on the war years, no real break, no change, just a few adjustments, they talk about living on in Japan as a former comfort woman from Korea, they talk about fishing in the traditional way. Master Wakamatsu delivered another meditation on the typical beauty of common defiance. It’s just that. It’s just. That.

In this company, the two offerings by Kurosawa Kiyoshi paled just that bit, with the smaller of the two works emerging as the more interesting: Umezu Kazuo no kyofu gekijo: Mushi-tachi no ie (Horror Theater: House of Bugs) (2005), a one-hour, structural, forcefully austere exercise in story-twisting with a cause and a purpose and a really cool CGI spider: so fake! Shi no otome (Loft) (2005), on the other hand, is… a dazzler of sorts: a mummy-movie of Charisma-ian (1999) weirdness with an echt Kurosawaian sense of genre-spinning till the guts are all on the floor and ready to be rearranged, reconsidered.

A Marca do Terrir

But back to the old masters and on to Brazil and Ivan Cardoso who actually had three works in Torino: A Marca do Terrir (The Mark of Terrir) (2005), his cine-autobiography by way of an inspired found/remembered footage mess, Heliorama (2005), a short, funky homage to paragonial Carioca-modernist Helio Oiticica, and Um Lobisomem na Amazônia (A Werewolf in the Amazonia) (2005), his latest slice of Terrir, featuring in a small part one of Rogério Sganzerla’s daughters as a goth girl in distress who gets munched up by Spanish icon Paul Naschy, the werewolf of werewolves. Terrir, as a concept, is as Brazilian as it gets, just ask Penadinho or Rui Hortensio: it’s an irreverent mix of Horror, gratuitous nudity – or sometimes right-on porno – and a lot of utterly stupid comedy. One might think of the Kuchars or John Waters, but it’s something else, and it’s also unlike Lloyd Kaufman’s wilfully trans-trashy offerings to the God of practical film criticism, or the works of his younger Japanese half-brother-in-cinema Kawasaki Minoru: even if they’re narrative clusterfucks, they’re meant to become some kind of whole, even if it’s only as a parody of aesthetical wholeness. Terrir, on the other hand, is meant to be heterogenous, its parts are not looking for a new whole. Its sense of avant-garde defiance lies in an unwillingness to mean anything, to not even be a pastiche or an homage – just a lot of weird, weird shit jarring. The three works together form something like a precise miniature of Ivan Cardoso, it’s all there: his connections with the art world (mainly of the ‘70s) as well as with the alms house of Brazilian cinema and its most famous inhabitant, Jose Mojica Marins aka Ze do Caixao; Cardoso and his friends/comrades’ sense of being in the World at large, their cosmopolitanism, while being as Brazilian, at times even as Carioca, as possible; his irreverent love of the real and his disgust with realism.

And onto Amir Naderi and his Sound Barrier (2005), probably the festival’s ultimate counter-offering to Cardoso. Besides Sound Barrier, even 17-sai no fûkei – Shônen wa nani o mita no ka looks narratively convoluted. It’s about two hours long. The first half consists of a deaf-mute boy rummaging through some storage space looking for a tape of a talk radio-show hosted by his late mother in which she tells the story of the accident which caused him to become deaf-mute. The second half consists of the boy, having found the tape, standing on a bridge with trucks going back and forth, creating an audio-pandemonium, persuading some stranger to listen there to the tape and slowly “tell” it to him – so that he can read his lips – word by word. Kind-of miracle. That’s all that happens. It’s astonishing, fascinating to see as well as listen to: how Naderi, his cinema, seems to really become one with that boy for whom our ordinary values just don’t count – if you can’t hear, you don’t give a flying fuck about noise, and some such. To give this exercise in longing, suffering and transcendence even more of an edge, Naderi jumps back and forth between the boy’s perspective, the viewer’s sense of lostness in his deafness, and an “outer” perspective looking at the boy, creating a particular tension, dialectic of movements inside out and outside in. It’s probably something of a masterpiece – it’s certainly something of a very strange audiovisual entity to spend meaningful time with.

Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist

If only it was so easy to qualify Paul Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005), or: can a mess be something like a masterpiece? Of course, by – what looks like – default, when suddenly all problems click. In a certain way, one can understand the producers who at first wanted to throw it in the nearest trash can: it certainly doesn’t work in any way people are used to – the acting seems accidentally Brechtian, the special effects are worse than awful, and the narrative force is, well, sluggish. All of which adds up to one serious work of Calvinist cinema: Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist is a film of the word, of discussions, all its problems – or let’s just say: differences from common cinematic conventions – add up to a total negation of everything safe for the word. One is meant to not get lost in images or psychology, one has to consider the thoughts mouthed by the protagonists. It’s a really strange work but it feels more important than most other films that opened this year – that said: it’s a dour experience, austere is too sexy, too Straubian a notion for this… That angry God of the Puritans has closed his hand and crushed the sinners therein, some got away just barely, standing now, that the fist opens itself again, on their God’s palm, knowing.

The word, its particular sensuousness, the written word, writing, books and libraries, a whole culture lost but still remembered, is the essence from which David Gatten (the only younger auteur to come up with a masterpiece) created his The Great Art of Knowing (2005). It makes pages from old books come alive – one can smell them, certainly – the feeling of taking one of those leather-bound tomes in one’s hands, it’s so there, and the humbling knowledge that time only biologically moves in a straight line while human thought defies that linearity; then the writing itself, that particular glory of ink in finest paper, the aliveness of every little scratch; the elegance of expression these tools seem to demand; and then that world which created this culture, how it changes and how that change seems to develop out of these pages and this ink, how it self-destructs, and how this seems somehow right. And how the trees don’t care, and why? Is this the Torino Film Festival ‘05 meta-movie? Maybe.

About The Author

Olaf Möller is a Cologne-born and -based film critic, writer and curator.

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